Star Trek Picard goes forth with “Absolute Candor”

It’s time for my episode by episode review of Star Trek Picard again. Previous installments may be found here.

In my review of episode 3 of Star Trek Picard, I said that it seems as if the set-up period was finally over and the show could get going with Picard and friends finally aboard a spaceship. However, episode 4 showed that the set-up wasn’t yet finished, as Picard makes one more pitstop to pick up the last member of the regular cast.

Warning. Spoilers behind the cut!

“Absolute Candor” starts off with yet another flashback to fourteen years prior. In the comments on Camestros Felapton’s review, Peer Sylvester says that the constant flashbacks remind him of Lost, which isn’t wrong. I’m also not sure that we need all those flashbacks, since the first two episodes already made pretty clear what happened.

This latest flashback sees Picard arriving on Vashti, a planet that serves as a hub for the Romulan relocation program. For what is essentially a refugee camp in space, Vashti looks remarkably idyllic. Picard is welcomed warmly and visits yet another never-before-seen Romulan secret society, an order of warrior nuns called Qowat Milat. The Qowat Milat follow the way of Absolute Candor, which means they are always absolutely and painfully honest, putting them at odds both with the more secretive elements of Romulan society such as the Tal Shiar and Zhat Vash as well as with the Romulans’ cousins once removed, the Vulcans with their insistence on logic and emotional suppression. The Qowat Milat are also really cool – after all, who wouldn’t love an order of bad arse warrior nuns?

In his review of this episode, Keith R.A. DeCandido says that Star Trek Picard has done more to flesh out Romulan culture than the previous 53 years of Star Trek series taken together. I certainly agree, because while the Vulcans, Klingons, Bajorans, Cardassians, Ferengi and even the Borg were fleshed out over the decades, the Romulans always remained one-dimensional bad guys. Hell, we’ve learned more about Kelpians in 26 episodes of Star Trek Discovery than we learned about the Romulans in 53 years.

The Qowat Milat have helped with the evacuation of refugees. They have also taken in Elnor, a young boy who was apparently orphaned during the evacuation. Elnor, who is clearly missing a father figure in his life, has taken to Picard. Picard is also quite fond of young Elnor. He reads The Three Musketeers to him (in an edition that’s clearly older than Patrick Stewart himself and by the 25th century is as old as the 16th century magazine that I once held in my hands in the Bremen university library) and also practices fencing with sticks. Those scenes are sweet and the Three Musketeers reference is a bit of an Easter egg, since Santiago Cabrera, who plays Captain Cristobal Rios in Picard, also played Aramis in the BBC Three Musketeers series of a few years ago.

Nonetheless, my initial reaction when I saw Picard interacting with young Elnor and clearly enjoying himself, was, “But Picard doesn’t even like kids. He never did.” In fact, “Picard doesn’t like kids” was one of his defining bits characterisation throughout The Next Generation and something which set him apart, because very few TV or film characters, particularly not positive characters, are allowed to dislike kids, even though there are plenty of people in the real world who don’t particularly like children and nonetheless manage not to be villains. Of course, Picard did interact with children aboard the Enterprise at several points and he did come to like at least Wesley Crusher, but he prefers to avoid contact with children and that’s fine. And indeed, one of the nuns even mentions that Picard does not like children. Which makes Picard’s obvious fondness of young Elnor an even more puzzling piece of inconsistent characterisation. Maybe Picard mellowed with age. Or maybe Elnor is the new Wesley, one of the few kids Picard does like.

At any rate, his sojourn with the Romulan warrior nuns and their young charge is cut short, when Picard receives a call informing him about the android attack on Mars. “But what will this mean for the evacuation?” several Romulans ask him. Picard assures them that nothing will change and gives them his word. We all know how that turned out.

And now, fourteen years later, Picard returns to Vashti, because he believes that a Romulan warrior nun will be an excellent addition to his little adventuring party. His former aide and disgraced Starfleet officer Raffi Musiker is not at all pleased that Picard wants to go to Vashti and accuses him that the boy is the true reason he wants to go back. Raffi also berates Cristobal Rios for taking Picard to Vashti by reminding Rios that he still is the captain of the ship (which gains a name, La Sirena, in this episode) and that he also isn’t a member of Starfleet anymore and doesn’t have to take orders from Picard. And indeed, it is a recurring motif throughout this episode that even though Rios is nominally the captain of the La Sirena, he still follows the orders Picard can’t resist giving, though he usually apologises afterwards.

Picard beams down to Vashti alone, which is clearly not a good idea, and finds the place changed. For starters, what was supposed to be a temporary settlement is now the permanent home of the Romulans who have been left hanging when the Federation cancelled the evacuation program. Vashti is also run down and beset by bandits and neither Starfleet nor a group calling itself the Fenris Rangers can do much about it. Furthermore, the Romulans have been infected by the same xenophobia and isolationism virus that also infested the Federation. And so the café, where Picard was once welcomed so warmly, now bears a sign saying “Romulans Only” in English. I’m not quite sure why they need it, since we don’t see any humans or other races on Vashti.

Picard pays a visit to the Qowat Milat who are actually pleased to see him for a change. He also meets Elnor again, who is all grown up now (and now played by Evan Evagora) and looks as if he’s auditioning for a part in Lord of the Rings (and indeed, I keep typing his name as Elrond). Unlike the rest of the Qowat Milat, Elnor is not happy to see Picard, understandably so, because Picard promised he’d come back and then never did. The question is, just why did Picard never return to Vashti until now? Even after he quit Starfleet, Picard could have gotten on a ship (we hardly ever seen human civilian space travel in Star Trek, but it must exist) and travelled to Vashti to explain what happened. And in fact, many of the problems in this episode could have been avoided, if Picard had gone back to Vashti to explain. As for Elnor, Picard could have taken him to Earth. Chateau Picard is a nice place for a kid to grow up, Elnor could have had a kitten of his own (he laments at one point, that he has never seen a cat), Lharis and Zaban (who sadly don’t appear in this episode) certainly wouldn’t have minded having someone else to fuss over and Picard himself probably would have been happier with more company as well. Last episode, we learned that Picard pretty much abandoned and ignored Raffi, after he left Starfleet, and now we learn that he did the same to Elnor. It almost seems as if Picard buried himself in his vineyard and waited to die, until Dahj showed up and woke him up. Okay, so he did take in Lharis and Zaban, but then I suspect that Lharis and Zaban were simply too stubborn to leave, when Picard ignored them. Nonetheless, Picard burying himself is at odds with the person we watched over seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the other hand, Jean-Luc Picard has always been chronically unable to be happy, so maybe his behavious after he was forced out of Starfleet, the only thing that ever mattered to him, does fit.

The head nun, meanwhile, has the splendid idea to pair up Picard and Elnor, because a) they already know and like each other, b) Elnor doesn’t belong with the Qowat Milat anyway and c) Elnor has had Qowat Milat training and should be more than sufficient for what Picard needs. I also have the sneaking suspicion that the nun planned to persuade Picard to take in Elnor all along, only that she had to wait fourteen years to implement that plan. So Picard approaches Elnor and tells his story, only to be rebuffed, when Elnor tells him quite rightly that Picard abandoned him and only came back when he needs help.

So Picard leaves the Qowat Milat and decides to pick a fight with some Romulans by deliberately pulling down the sign outside the café that says “Romulans only”, stepping on the sign and then walking into the café asking for something to drink. A Romulan confronts him and tells him that he and Picard met before, when he was a Romulan senator and listened to Picard promising that Starfleet would help the Romulans. The Romulan ex-senator is also understandably pissed that none of that ever came to pass and he isn’t interested in Picard’s apologies either, thank you very much. Instead, he wants to fight and tosses Picard a sabre.

Picard’s behaviour in this scene doesn’t really fit the Jean-Luc Picard we know either, because he doesn’t normally go around deliberately provoking people who have good reason to want to see him dead. That’s more Kirk’s style and even Kirk usually has more sense than that. Okay, so Picard did deliberately provoke some aliens who stabbed him in the heart as a young cadet, but I’d hope that 80-year-old Picard would be more mature than 18-year-old Picard. Of course, Picard’s erratic behaviour might be an early symptom of the dementia he was warned about two episodes ago. And since Sir Patrick Stewart, the person who knows the character better than anybody else, had the right to veto anything he felt did not ring true, we assume that there is a reason for his flat out strange behaviour. Never mind that Picard quite often behaved like a jerk back in the Next Generation days, as Ani Bundel points out at SyFy Wire. However, most of us have banished the bad early episodes (and bad later episodes) of The Next Generation from our collective consciousness, so we only remember the Picard who always did the right thing.

Or maybe the swordfight with the Romulan ex-senator only exists to give Sir Patrick Stewart the chance to show off his swordfighting skills for the second time in this episode. But while Picard may be a fine swordsman, the Romulan is younger, stronger and angrier, so Picard is outmatched. But then Elnor shows up, rescues Picard, gives the Romulan ex-senator a chance to surrender and when the ex-senator refuses, Elnor chops his head off. This royally pisses off the other Romulans, but before they can attack, Picard and Elnor are beamed back aboard the La Sirena. Picard berates Elnor that chopping off heads is absolutely not acceptable, but the crew of the La Sirena have bigger problems than a headchopping happy Romulan warrior monk (who, it turns out, joined the quest for Soji, because the Qowat Milat only pledge their sword to lost causes, which bodes well for the future).

Because one of the bandits harrassing the people of Vashti has dropped by complete with an ancient Romulan Bird of Prey (nice seeing one of those again still looking like they always did) and is firing on the La Sirena. And so we get treated to a nice space battle, complete with everybody shaking and tossing about in their seats just like in the old days. We also meet another of Captain Rios’ holograms. This one is his gunner who looks like the tattooed bad boy hero of a motorcycle club romance and speaks only Spanish. Santiago Cabrera clearly has a lot of fun playing all these different versions of the same character, complete with different languages and accents. Camestros Felapton points out in his review that we’ve never seen Rios Prime outside his ship either, so maybe he is a hologram as well. It would certainly be an interesting twist.

The Bird of Prey may be ancient, but it still has the La Sirena outgunned, until a mystery ship shows up to blast the Bird of Prey out of orbit. However, the mystery ship is fatally damaged in the process, so the La Sirena crew beam the pilot aboard, only to realise that it’s none other than Seven of Nine. Cue end credits. Of course, what would have been an absolutely brilliant cliffhanger was somewhat spoiled by listing Jeri Ryan as a guest star in the title credits, but it’s still nice to see Seven of Nine back.

Meanwhile, back at the Borg cube, Soji is still somewhat shaken from her encounter with deborgified Romulan anthropologist Ramda and decides to find out more about the term Ramda called her, the Destroyer. What she finds is an old interview with a pre-Borg Ramda who explains that the Destroyer is a pivotal figure in some kind of Romulan End of the Universe myth. So now poor Soji is not just an illegal android, she’ll also bring about the end of everything.

Narek shows up and tells Soji that Ramda was never quite right, even before she was turned into a Borg. He then tries (and succeeds) to distract Soji by sliding across the particularly smooth floor in a specific section of the Borg cube. It’s a genuinely sweet moment and once again, we wonder whether Narek is just playacting or whether he is beginning to develop genuine feelings for Soji. Meanwhile, Soji has been wondering about Narek as well. He wears no uniform and no insignia and yet he can go wherever he pleases aboard the Borg cube. “Are you Tal Shiar?” she asks him point blank. “No”, Narek replied and while we know that he’s telling the truth, because he is not Tal Shiar but Zhat Vash, Soji does not. And so she asks him if he can get her some classified information about Ramda and how she was assimilated. Narek says that he doesn’t have that information, but might know someone who does.

That someone is obviously is sister Narissa, who pays Narek a visit, once Soji has stormed off after a quarrel. Once again, Narissa displays some seriously creepy incest vibes, though Narek does try to push her away. He also assures her that he is working to get Soji to tell him where “the others” are (so there are more organic androids?), but he’s doing it his own way. Narissa, meanwhile, is doubtful how committed Narek still is to the cause and chokes him until he calls Soji “the Destroyer”.

In Anglo-American pop culture, incest seems to have become something of a shorthand for “seriously twisted villain”. Come to think of it, incest has been used in that way for a long time now – the central mystery in the 1974 neo-noir movie Chinatown is John Huston committing incest with Faye Dunaway and then there is the incest in the 1979 gothic thriller Flowers in the Attic and its sequels by V.C Andrews. But in recent years, the use of incest as a shorthand for villain has really exploded in Anglo-American pop culture. Meanwhile, “incest” shows up comparatively rarely in German pop culture, probably many of us have had dreadfully dull literary treatments of incest such as Wälsungenblut by Thomas Mann and Homo Faber by Max Frisch (or, if you were unlucky like me, both) shoved down out throats in German class. That said, using incest as a way to characterise a character/characters as evil annoys me, because in the real world, incest is almost always a tragedy and either involves sexual abuse or – when happening between consenting adults – it’s usually a case of blood relatives being separated early and meeting only as adults and connecting to each other in the wrong way.

Also, the incestous vibes between Narek and Narissa are entirely unnecessary, because the story would have worked just as well, if she were simply his Romulan ex, who also happens to be a fellow Zhat Vash agent. There was absolutely no need to make them siblings. Never mind that we’re not even sure if incest is as strong a taboo among Romulans as it is among humans.

One thing that all reviewers agree upon is that Star Trek Picard moves very slowly. We’re almost at the halfpoint of the ten-episode season now and Picard has only just assembled his crew. In fact, “Absolute Candor” could have been eliminated entirely, if Elnor had been introduced as living at Chateau Picard either as a refugee kid adopted by or a biological kid of Lharis and Zaban or maybe a nephew they call in to help. He could still be a martial arts bad arse – after all, Lharis and Zaban are both pretty formidable themselves. Never mind that it’s pretty obvious that the Romulans will be pissed at Picard and Starfleet’s failure to help them. We didn’t need a swordfight with a disgruntled ex-senator to prove it. And while I like Soji and Narek, considering how long their subplot has been going on now, I question the decision to have them fall into bed between the first and second episode. Sometimes, a slow-burn romance can work much better and it’s not as if they didn’t have time to develop the relationship. In fact, as things are now, I strongly suspect that Picard will pull a Witcher and only have Picard and Soji meet up in the final episode, maybe even only the final scene.

But even though Star Trek Picard moves at glacial speed, the series is entertaining and I have been enjoying every episode so far. It’s only when I sit down to write these reviews that I realise that very little actually happened in the episode I just watched. Still, hopefully the actual plot will start next episode.

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2 Responses to Star Trek Picard goes forth with “Absolute Candor”

  1. I am also annoyed at the incest subplot. It wasn’t really until I was reading your review and Cam’s that it occurred to me that this particular shorthand seems to be what lazy writers are falling back on now that people are more likely to object when one uses queer-coding to indicate how evil a character is.

    I think I may need to write a post about that…

    • Cora says:

      I will certainly be interested in reading your thoughts about this. And yes, incest = evil seems to have replaced LGBTQ = evil to a certain degree. Personally, I would vastly prefer no lazy shorthands to code characters as evil.

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